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Baring it All for the Cause

Posted Aug 19 2009 12:00am
There's nothing like stripping down to your scivvies in front of 40 people whom you've only known for a week to make you feel like an uber-confident first year. Welcome to OMM lab, folks!

OMM (osteopathic manipulative medicine, also called OMT - osteopathic manipulative treatment) is what sets us D.O.s apart from the M.D.s. It teaches us to heal with our hands, to palpate the body, and to learn how to interact with our patients on the most basic and tactile level. Our hands are our best tools (any doctor, artist, or chef would agree with that), so it makes sense to learn these techniques. And if I have a patient suffering from chronic pain who can't afford expensive medication, I'll be able to provide him/her with an affordable and quality healthcare alternative. So what does this have to do with baring it all? Well, in order for a new D.O. student to learn these methods, one must practice being the physician....and the patient.

We have a dress code for OMM lab: shorts above the knee and a sports bra/bikini top for women (men - you've gotta go topless). I knew this before I started school, which is why I spent my summer trying to trim the body squidge. Despite burning numerous calories after months of daily workouts, I still felt self-conscious walking into a room where I knew I'd be showing a whole lot of skin. And sure, on some level I knew that everyone else was in the same boat, but that never makes it better. So, after the initial welcome to OMM lab, we were paired up and instructed to get to work. What a way to make a new friend. "Hi, my name's ____. Should I take my clothes off, or do you want to go first?" (It's always best to be polite, right?) Fortunately my partner was braver than I and volunteered to be the patient. The first task was to examine the patient's gait. So as my partner paced back and forth I studied her movements, examining her hip alignment and looking for signs of shoulder asymmetry. Then, I had to palpate her forearm. There's so much you can discover from just one part of the body: temperature, skin texture, pulse, how the muscles and tendons move when the arm tenses and relaxes. I told her we could switch roles, and with a look of mixed thankfulness and anxiety she asked, "So, what do you think?" I sensed there was a little more to that question, I would have had the same uncertainty had I been the patient first. I shared all of my findings - possible shoulder asymmetry with a lean to the right, hips looked balanced, and I felt warm, elastic skin and a strong radial pulse on her forearm - all said with a hint of hesitation. Are we really supposed to know what the heck we're talking about on our first day, as if I woke up that morning and my brain was magically full of medical terminology (here's hoping that day will come!).

I was up my next. I slowly peeled off my shirt and all I could think was "Suck that gut in!" I walked down the aisle, trying to avoid a collision with the other "patients" parading for their "physician" partners. As I turned around to walk back to my "doc", one of the professors came over for some extra instruction.
"Okay great, now let's have the patient stand still and let's see what we'll find." So I stood and became a perfect model of abnormality.
"Take a close look at her legs, she's knock-kneed." (Note to self, think again about wearing skirts)
"And how about her shoulders...yep, one looks higher than the other." (Uh, have you seen the massive weights that are our medical books?)
"And when she walks (this is where I was instructed to walk, kind of like animals at a state fair), you see how her hips move?" (Hey man, real women have curves)

I was finally able to get dressed when the professor couldn't find any more physical flaws, there was actually an end if you could believe it. We wrapped up the session and headed home. Now, this is where it gets weird. As I made my way through the crowded NYC streets I wasn't passing by strangers, I was picking up on how all of these different body types moved. There goes a man with a cane, I wonder if it really helps maintain his balance. There goes a woman carrying a heavy load of groceries, her muscles are getting innervated and supplied by blood vessels. I was suddenly seeing the world through a different lens, not exactly rose-colored, but certainly very interesting. All of those physiological facts and OMM techniques I had been desperately shoving into my brain were slowly making connections, and they were transforming how I saw people - stripped down to their marvelous anatomical level.

It took me shedding my clothes and brief moments of self-consciousness to see myself (all asymmetry and squidge) to really see others. So I bared it all for the cause, and it helped me to appreciate all that makes us function and live and thrive.
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